Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Slice and Dice: Jackfruit

Jackfruit tree, close up jackfruit, pile of fruit pods, jackfruit at Jewel
The last time I landed at Cochin International Airport, there was a taxi cab driver bandh or strike. My cousin Kunjumon miraculously managed to retrieve me with the help of a private driver. 

Soon after we arrived at his house, I stepped under a canopy of coconut trees towering in the backyard. The toasty air and lush green landscape provided the perfect counterpoint to the steely winter weather I'd left behind. 

Before I could take a breath, Kujumon ran out and accosted me.

"What are you doing out here? You could get hit by a coconut."

I thought he was teasing me as my Dad's side is full of pranksters. 

"Really you could get killed." Rats, he was serious. 

As it turns out, death by hard-shelled fruit is no joke in Kerala (a.k.a the land of coconuts). I learned that the only thing worse is getting pummeled by jackfruit, which can weigh over 100 pounds. 

Like turmeric and cardamom, jackfruit is a Kerala original. From the outside, it looks like a portly, prehistoric reptile. Picture an elephantine watermelon covered in a tapestry of poky, grasshopper green nubs. Carve open a ripe one, however, and they will come. It's gentle flavor falls somewhere between a banana and a perfectly ripened cantaloupe. It's texture has bite. No fruity mush here.  

In the U.S., fresh jackfruit used to be a rare find. Recognizing that dilemma, my cousin Sunil once lugged a sizable one from Miami to Cleveland to surprise his parents. He held it close at check in to manage the weight. A fellow passenger assumed it was a child and asked, "Can I see your baby?" No joke. 

Thanks to its growing popularity, fresh jackfruit has become increasingly available, cutting down on such awkward moments. In Chicago, precut wedges are often available along Devon Avenue. More surprisingly, it now pops up at mainstream grocery stores, including Jewel. 

Prepping ripe jackfruit is a multi-stepped labor of love. If you want to bring a fresh bowlful to the table, read on.

How to Select Jackfruit

Since the good stuff is inside, it's easiest to start with a precut wedge of jackfruit (just as you might with watermelon) and work your way to the tasty pods. If you go this route, look for a wedge that is pineapple yellow versus butter yellow for the fullest
 flavor. Warning: ripe jackfruit has a funky aroma, which may emanate through the wrapping. Don't let it scare you.

If you're beginning with a whole fruit, look for a yellow-green shell. Green-shelled jackfruit may be prettier, but the fruit will not be ripe. 

Wedges of jackfruit

How to Cut Jackfruit

Jackfruit contains ribs covered in a very stick resin. To begin, coat your hands, your chef's knife, and your cutting board with a thin layer of neutral oil to keep it from globing on. Soap and water will not do the trick. Trust me, you do not want to skip this step. 

Cut the fruit width wise to create a disk and make it easier to handle.

Slice the disk in half.
Slice away the fibrous core and cut into wedges.

Pull out the fleshy pods.

Pull open the pods like a clam shell and remove the seeds, which are also edible. (More on that later.)

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